My wife, Wendy, our 17-pound guard dog, Daisy and I left home base in Portland on Sunday and made the 3 plus hour drive down to Sisters, Oregon. The plan was to begin the Three Sisters Wilderness Loop on Monday morning. It would be just me going out on the trail, but Wendy and Daisy decide after spending much of last year at home that they wanted to get out of the house. Wendy worked remotely and enjoyed what Sisters had to offer, while Daisy spent most of her time patrolling the grounds in-between her lengthy naps. I was super happy to have them both down with me. It was reassuring to know that they’d be close by in case I needed them.
After an essential carbo-load of pizza and beer on Sunday evening, Monday morning didn’t hesitate to arrive. Before my feeble brain knew where it was, I found myself at the Pole Creek Trailhead. Wendy kindly shuttled me out to the trailhead at 6:30am. It was only a 30-minute drive from town, but it seemed longer due to a section of badly, washboarded road.
Pole Creek was severely burned in 2012 when a fire was sparked by lightning. This is readily apparent when you arrive at the trailhead.
On my first day I had an ambitious goal and was shooting to set up camp at Moraine Lake. This was a 15.5-mile leg. I wasn’t sure if I’d make it that far as my normal hiking range without an overnight pack is around 8-10 miles. In reality, I figured my old ass would end up at Green Lakes. However, I reached Green Lakes and was feeling pretty good. I took a break here and ate some lunch. It was a beautiful area and one of the more popular and populated areas that I uncounted along the loop.
From Green Lakes, I hiked approximately another 4 miles to Moraine Lake. My eyes were happy that I continued. It was a lovely part of the hike and a true stand-out. I was able to secure a designated camp spot. Most of the main attractions along this loop require you to camp within 15-ft. of a post with a tent symbol on it. They are pretty spread out and can be a little challenging to find, but the signs before you approach the camp area have a Lat/Long coordinate if you need it.
Once I had my tent set up, it was time to boogie down to the lake. I didn’t hesitate to go in. The water was pretty chilly, but it was so refreshing after a long day. Bonus points for the lake bed consisting of fine gravel. No icky muck to deal with. I stayed in the water for a bit and took in the view. Later that evening, I sat by the shore and was hoping to get a decent sunset photo, but it was not as epic as I had hoped for. Still, just being there in that moment was more than enough.
With my blood still in my body, I set back out on the trail. My goal today was to make it to Linton Meadows, or better yet, put in a little extra and camp at Eileen Lake. Backpacking Oregon recommended this camp as an alternative. I said my farewell to Moraine Lake.
The morning was filled with some long stretches of open expanses and not one person. In a forested area that I hiked through on my way down to Wickiup Plain I saw a good size doe. She was intensely checking me out. I told her I was married, but that didn’t stop her from looking.
After Wickiup Plain, I was now on the PCT. I began seeing more folks at this point. I probably encountered about 10 PCT thru-hikers before arriving at the Foley Ridge Trail. I took a left on Foley Ridge and made my way to the Linton Meadows Trail where I went right. After another long open meadow traverse, it wasn’t long before I had to decide to take another left towards Eileen Lake or keep straight and continue on to Linton Meadows. I made the decision to head to Elieen Lake. Why not, I mumbled, I wouldn’t be back here anytime soon. Along the way, I saw Husband Lake and another Marmot. I also noticed the sky was beginning to get hazy with smoke. Someone told me earlier on the trail that there was a fire near Oakridge, Oregon. I was like, another fire. Ugh.
When I got to Eileen Lake a group of folks were already camping there. I took a look around but decided to take the loop trail back towards Linton Meadows. As I was leaving, someone from their camp saw me and said we have (4) bottles of wine and some other legal drugs and non-legal drugs if you want to camp. I said, if you have beer, I’m in. They seemed like a fun group, but I needed a decent night’s sleep. I pushed on to Linton Meadows where I found a great tent site and was the only one around. I was bushed. Another 15 miler. The nearby creek helped restore me that evening, or at least make me numb for a bit. It was the coldest water that I think I’ve ever been in. I laid down in the 10-12” deep water two times for maybe 5 seconds to get the grime off. My teeth still chatter thinking about it.
I left camp that morning under smokey skies and headed out and up the Linton Meadows Trail where I hooked back up with the PCT. My next camp spot destination was South or North Matthieu Lake, also known as Scott Pass. This would take me through the Obsidian Limited Entry, which included Obsidian Falls. This was the only large waterfall on the entire loop that was right off the trail. It’s a great place to cool off and fill up on water, which you’ll need for the rest of the trek to Matthieu Lakes. Alternately, there is one more shallow creek about 1 mile north of Obsidian Falls named Glacier Creek that’s another water option. I saw a few folks filling up there and enjoying the beautiful wildflowers. It wasn’t long after Glacier Creek that I found myself in an old lava zone. It was beautiful, but also hellish. It was hot with no shade, the trail was covered with small, volcanic rock which slowed your stride, and a few of the climbs were draining, especially near Opie Dilldock Pass.
The rest of the trail to my 3rd and final camp was pretty much open and sparse. I was excited when I got to South Matthieu Lake and found a camping spot. There are only about 3-4 designated spots at the South Lake. The North Lake has more, but is a little further. I put down my bag, strapped on my sandals, and went into the lake. It felt so good! Later that evening (3) guys showed up looking for a tent spot. All of the sites were taken, but I still had plenty of room at mine and said they were welcome to set up. They did. I learned they were just returning to the PCT after a few days in Bend. One even cracked a beer which made my eyes and mouth perk up. If only I had a beer. I went to bed early and listened to my radio and them talking. It was funny at times. They all had different personalities. You had the stoner-sounding guy, the analytical guy, and your average type guy. They talked about using different leaves to wipe their bottom side if they were out of TP. Their favorite leaf was from a Big Leaf Maple. I also heard the term ‘Hiker Midnight’ for the first time, which they said was 9 pm, the time hikers should be in their tent and going to sleep.
This was my last day. I knew I had a fun time ahead. I read many reviews that the trail from Matthieu Lake/Scott Pass to my return point at the Pole Creek trailhead sucked. I can confirm this statement as true. As mentioned, most of this area was entirely burned in 2012 making for a stark landscape. On top of that, I read that there was a long, laborious section of trail which involved going over downed trees.
About halfway back, I crossed paths with a group of three who shouted out “a human” when they saw me. The dad and the son in the group were super cool. Both had Grateful Dead shirts on which made them even cooler. We talked for a bit about where we had been. They warned me of the downed trees up ahead and asked if there were any more where I came from. They were happy to hear that my answer was, no. As we passed on the trail to continue the dad said, “keep on trucking”.
The log hurdling soon began and so did my unlimited cursing. At one point I lost the trail because it was covered with so much debris. Fortunately, my Gaia GPS app helped me easily get back on course. I should’ve listened to the several articles that I read saying to skip this part. I even saw a pair of Backpackers doing the loop in the other direction. I saw them earlier on my trip between Pole Creek and Green Lakes. We ended up meeting again on the PCT before the Obsidian Limited Entry Area. We chatted for a bit. They even suggested that I skip the last section. They said it was hell. I thought about bailing at Matthieu Lake and heading out to the Lava Camp area/Hwy 242. My wife could easily grab me there, but being the stubborn fool that I am, I wanted to complete the loop.
Eventually, the Pole Creek trailhead intersection arrived. I was almost done. As I was walking back to where it all began, I thanked the Three Sisters Wilderness for having me and looked up towards the sky and thanked whoever might be up there listening for safely getting me back. I texted my wife Wendy and she drove out to pick me up. As we were leaving, a Forest Ranger drove up and was checking permits. I happily showed her mine. I told her I didn’t see as many people on the trail as I anticipated. She said a lot of people get the permits but are no-shows. I told her I was happy to see the permit system in place to help protect these unique and beautiful areas. On that note, I waited to get my permit until the last minute as I was unaware that they started requiring them this year. Fortunately, I was able to secure one using the 7 days in advance system.
It was great not having to drive all the way back to Portland and just 30 minutes to Sisters where we stayed one more night. Pizza and beer were once again in the forecast that evening…that, and a real bed. It was nice to be back with my amazing wife, Wendy and our super entertaining dog, Daisy.
This was our second attempt to reach the summit of Mount St. Helens. On October 25th, 2019 my buddy Mark and I made it within approximately 1,000 ft. of the top. The weather that day started out great, but deteriorated fast. The winds began to howl and visibility significantly decreased. We decided it wasn’t worth the risk, plus we didn’t see the point of reaching the top without a view. We were disappointed, but said we’d return the following year to give it another go.
We put March, 18th 2020 on the calendar. This is the day permits are available for the April thru October climbing season. If you plan on going during this time, get your permit as soon as you can. The dates fill up fast. We actually got lucky and ended up getting the August 31st date we wanted. We were shooting for a day when there was a full moon and no snow. Our plan was to summit at sunrise.
On August 30th we left Portland around 5 pm and headed to the Mount St. Helens Climber’s Bivouac. The Climber’s Bivouac is basically a parking area with campsites and a couple of pit toilets. It was here that we’d spend the night. Mark and I got our rigs set-up for sleeping, ate some dinner, and had a few beers. Shortly after sunset, we hit the hay hoping that the forecasted rain would hold off.
I awoke in the back of my truck canopy that night around 1 am. I had to pee. I climbed off the tailgate and felt light sprinkles. Soon after getting back inside and into my sleeping bag full-on rain arrived. Ugh. We were planning to wake up at 3 am and start hiking towards the summit to hopefully catch the sunrise. However, Mother Nature was giving us a signal that she didn’t want us on the mountain. It was probably for the better. With the low clouds and fog, and no moonlight, it would’ve been a challenge to follow the trail through the boulder fields with only our headlamps. So, we waited out the rain in our rigs. Finally, a little before 6 am we hit the trail. We didn’t know what to expect with the weather, but we were going to give it a go. We began the hike in the dark with our headlamps, but it wasn’t long before the morning light started filtering in through the trees. As we recalled from 2019, the first 2 or so miles weren’t bad. You hike a well-established trail through the forest that has a gradual incline.
We reached the end of the forested area with plenty of daylight. We could see the boulder fields ahead. This is where the real work began. To our surprise there were just a few low clouds hanging around and the fog was about gone. It looked like it was going to be a great day.
When you reach the boulder fields, the trail becomes more difficult to follow. Actually, there really isn’t a defined trail. You have to look for the approximately 4-inch wide by 6-foot tall wooden poles that mark the general route. You basically choose your lines. This portion makes-up for about 2/3rds of the climb and accounts for about 2,500 ft. of elevation. There’s lots of rock hopping and rock grabbing to be had. Be careful, because the volcanic rock is sharp. A fall here could be bad. Gardening type gloves, which I didn’t bring, would’ve been good to have.
Once we passed through the boulder fields we were almost to the point where we turned around in 2019. We soon saw the GPS station where we hunkered down that day from the howling wind. It sure looked different without the snow. We decided this would be a good place to take a break.
While resting and having some snacks, we saw a person at the summit. The top looked so close. This inspired us to get our butts moving again. It only took a few minutes to realize the rest of the way was going to be a slow-going, approximately 1,000 ft., steep, laborious trudge through loose gravel and sand. As we inched our way up, we saw the person that was at the top coming down towards us. He was like, “You’re almost there.” I think we both said, “shut-up!” after he left. Actually, he was kind of right. The summit sneaked up on us. He warned us of the concave area as you approached the summit. He said it was extremely windy and that the sandy gravel would be pelting us. It did. The wind was so strong it almost blew us over. Once we successfully passed through the wind tunnel we were at the top. I don’t think either one of us believed it. We did it. It was a great feeling. We even had the summit to ourselves. We were the 2nd folks up there that morning. I’ve only seen the inside of the crater from the air when flying back from Seattle. It sure was neat to see it from a different perspective. The lava dome, the colorful rocks, and the surrounding view, which included, Rainier, Adams, and Hood were incredible. We stayed to take some photos and Mark consumed an 8,366 ft., PB and J. The wind was blowing pretty good and the temperature was nose running-red cheek chilly. We would’ve been delighted to stay a bit longer, but St. Helens was telling us it was time to head down.
Trekking down St. Helens was so much faster, but still a challenge, plus we were getting tired. Heading back through the boulder section was letting our knees know that we weren’t young lads anymore. Having hiking poles was a tremendous help both ways, but I found them the most valuable on the decent. The fog and low clouds greeted us as we made our way down, but never obscured the guide poles.
We finally reached the forested portion of the trail. The last 2+ miles seemed to go on forever. The little drops along the way were painful. Where was the end of the frickin’ trial? Finally, we saw the pavement of the road where the Climber’s Bivouac was. Oh, what a feeling. It was time for a well-deserved beer.
As middle age was approaching, which happened to sneak-up on me way too fast, I started thinking about personal things that I really wanted to accomplish. I guess you could use the term ‘bucket list’, but that seems cliché. Plus, I’m not even near as old as Jack Nicholson or Morgan Freeman. Anyway, one of the things I regularly enjoy is hiking. I do dabble in backpacking, but I’ve never done an extended trip. For me, I’m fine sleeping in the woods with minimal crap for one night. The thought of setting up and tearing down every day after putting in many miles sounded daunting. However, the Timberline Trail around Mt. Hood has always been appealing. I read it’s one of the finest backpacking loops in America. I’ve also seen many photos and they left my eyes wanting more. About a year ago, I decided to do it in 2020. My friend, Art from Philly was supposed to be joining me, but COVID put a damper on that. I really wish we could’ve experienced the adventure together.
I set my alarm for 6 am on Sunday, August 9th. Living in Portland, I’m only about an hour and twenty-minute drive to Timberline Lodge where I was set to begin my adventure. I ended up getting to the parking lot around 8 am. It’s a huge lot and you don’t need to pay or have a permit. You just need to remember where you parked your rig so you can find it when you return. I did a few stretches, took a couple more sips of coffee, put my boots on, and strapped on my pack. This was it. I headed to the starting point, which is a short jaunt up the hill above the lodge. I was hearing voices in my head saying, “Are you really doing this?”, and “you brought to much stuff”. Yes, I’m doing this, damn it, and yes, my pack should be lighter. With those questions laid to rest, the plan was to tackle the route clockwise. The only reason I decided to do it clockwise was that most of the information I read said it was the most popular route. On that note, I highly recommend doing research when setting off on any type of hike or backpacking trip. Get to know the area, the terrain, the trail conditions, etc. Here are some sources that were very helpful for me when preparing for the Timberline Trail:
I started the trail with about a half-dozen other people, some day hikers, some backpackers. We all had to sign-in at the permit box that was located not far from the trailhead. This broke up the group as it took a few minutes to fill-out the free, self-issued backcountry permit. The views were already stunning. The mountain was right there and the sky was so clear that you could see for miles. This was the case for most of the trip.
I read the first leg of the Timberline trail is a warm-up. I thought it was slightly more than that, but I’m an old, grumpy gramps. I will say it is much easier than the 2nd and 3rd leg. It wasn’t nearly as challenging, but there’s still a fair amount of elevation gain. My first real obstacle was the Sandy River, but the rock cairns across the wide, rocky river bed led me to a few logs that someone spent some time placing to help make the crossing easier for the rest of us. Once crossed, I set -up camp for the evening. There are a number of nice camping spots on either side of the river. Of course, I chose the site where someone had recently dug a cathole nearby. I only noticed this after I was set-up and a breeze blew in an unpleasant smell. Fortunately, the winds calmed, and sleeping odor-free was in my forecast. On that note, please don’t poop where you eat and sleep.
I woke up later than I wished on Monday. I think all of the prepping and restlessness the night before beginning the trail wore me out. I was back at it around 8:30 am. My first pit stop was right up the trail. Ramona Falls. Man, she’s a beauty. I’ve been to a lot of areas on Mt. Hood, but I’d never seen Ramona. Pure loveliness.
From Ramona I knew it was going to be a long, slow-footed, up-hill ascent. I think it was approximately 2500-3000 ft. in elevation gain. Once again though, the beauty that surrounds you keeps you stimulated and helps fuel you on. On this leg, there’s a Timberline Trail short-cut to shave off about a mile if you want. I highly suggest not taking it. The views on the one-mile stretch are definitely worth the extra steps.
It was on the second leg that I came across another solo hiker named, Zoe. I immediately noticed her full-frame camera. That sparked-up a nice conversation. I told her I was this close to bringing my full-frame, but I rented a smaller camera instead. It’s always cool to meet other Photogs. We’d ended up playing leapfrog for the remainder of the trip.
I made it to my second, ‘top secret’ camp destination. Most people camp at Elk Cove on this leg, but I choose a place that I had previously camped at on a one-night outing as I knew there would be fewer people. It was as beautiful as I remembered. I even saw a Marten! I’ve never seen a Marten. He was curious about me, but soon scurried away. That night the wind howled. My tent made so much noise that it made sleeping difficult. I wish I’d brought earplugs.
The next morning, I was on the trail at 7:30 am. This is where I ran into Pilgrim. He was retired, had a nice sized, beer-like belly, and later I found out he completed more than 1,000 miles on the PCT before running into snow. He was an inspiration. He ended up trading leads with Zoe and I for the rest of the day.
So, today’s big challenge was the Elliot Creek crossing and the section after Cloud Cap. However, I first found out that the Coe Creek Crossing was going to test my leaping abilities. As I approached Coe, I saw two folks cross. One person walked right through the creek with their boots on, and the other jumped some very spaced rocks. I choose the rock jumping option. I figured my long legs could get it done and I wouldn’t have to deal with wet boots. Well, that didn’t happen. I slipped off one rock and one of my boots got soaked. I was thankful that only my boot got wet and I didn’t take a spill. It could’ve been worse. Kids, don’t do what this idiot did. I learned my lesson.
Onward to the roar of Eliot Creek. The sound only intensified as you descended the long, switchback trail into the canyon. The butterflies in my stomach wanted out. I was hopeful that the large log mentioned in The Adventure Continues ‘Timberline Trail 2020’ was still there. Thankfully it was. However, getting to the log was the challenge. The banks were steep and the gravel was loose. One wrong move here and you could be hanging out with the crash test dummies. Zoe was ahead of Pilgrim and I. We saw her route and followed. Zoe made it across safely. I was behind Pilgrim. He made his way into the canyon and crossed the log. I followed suit. We all made it up the other side of the canyon and continued the long, laborious uphill climb to Cloud Cap.
Cloud Cap has a small picnic/camp area. Pilgrim and I took a break and sat at a picnic table. We both ate some food and I filtered some water that was in my pack. The upcoming journey across Mt Hood’s NE side was going to long and hot. There would be no shade and little water. Be sure you have plenty of water before you arrive at Cloud Cap. After lunch, the adventure continued. I parted ways with Pilgrim. He left shortly after. I came across Zoe eating lunch up the trail. As much as I like being alone at times, it’s nice to be around good people, plus it adds another layer of safety.
After a short hike through the forest, I was greeted by vast openness and a very sandy and rocky trail. Nothing like hiking in sand. Wholly shit. The entire section of the trail was grueling. I nicked-named it’ ‘Beautiful Hell’. The sun was hot, and every time you thought you were almost at the top you were handed a big laughing emoji and a billboard that read ‘SUCKER’. I used several choice words throughout the day. Zoe told me one fellow hiker said she was almost there. That was not the case. Sometimes it’s better to keep your mouth shut. I ended up getting close to running out of water too. Thankfully, there were a few trickling glacier streams to refill my bottles. As much as this section was physically and mentally challenging, it did present us with beautiful scenery.
Once we all finally reached the high point it was mostly downhill to Newton Creek. This would be our final camping spot, but before arriving we had to cross Newton. This time I wasn’t going to play chicken with logs or rocks. The river was moving swiftly. There was a janky, log crossing that looked sketchy. I picked a calmer area and tested out the depth of the creek with my hiking poles. All seemed good and across I went. My boots and socks got soaked, but camp was right on the other side. They had the night to dry out, which they never completely did.
Before crashing that evening, Pilgrim said he’d offer me a cigar, but that he only had one left. He did offer me some Brandy though. I thought that was very nice of him, but I politely declined. I did check out his super-lightweight, Zpacks tent. It was fantastic and you could tell Pilgrim clearly loved it. I’ll have to add it to my ‘Future Gear to Buy List’.
Rain. WT%! That was my wake-up call. I heard sprinkles on my tent and immediately jumped out of bed to avoid having the rest of my gear get wet. When I came across Zoe later that morning on the trail she said the same thing. The rain made her jump out of bed. She also said Pilgrim woke up super early and high-tailed it out of there. I was hoping to say goodbye. It was a pleasure sharing a few moments with him.
There was one more river crossing to complete after Clark Creek. The White River. This was pretty easy in terms of the water portion, but getting up the other side of the +/-10ft., steep embankment was a doozy. I followed Zoe’s lines. I was worried about both of us, but we both made it out safely. The remainder of the hike was pretty much all uphill and crossed through the Mt. Hood Meadows ski area. There were some beautiful wildflower displays here and on the rest of the leg. Come to think of it, there were tons of gorgeous wildflowers to take-in on the entire trip.
Soon, I could see the Timberline Lodge ski lifts come into view. Next, the parking lot and the lodge itself. The end was near. I felt so happy and proud, but it was also bittersweet. Four of us had made it back at the same time. One guy said jokingly, “are you ready to go around again?” I think we thought about it for a hot second. Zoe and I cheered each other with our hiking poles and we all went back to find our wheels. The drive home was a blur. I was super stoked at first about what I had accomplished, but then I felt a stoned-like feeling. This changed when I pulled up to the house. I was excited to see my wonderful wife, Wendy and our little, 17-pound canine critter, Daisy. I also was looking forward to talking with my family. A pie from our neighborhood haunt, Ranch Pizza topped off the evening before retiring to a much welcomed, real bed.
1. Don’t rely on cell service:
I looked at a Verizon Coverage Map and felt pretty comfortable that I’d have service for most for the trip. This was not the case. I should’ve rented or purchased an emergency locator/messenger, like the Garmin inReach.
2. Only pack what you need:
I probably could’ve dropped at least 5 pounds. I took way too much food, a camera tripod (only used it 1 time), a giant, brick power bank (still fully charged after the trip), and a Bear Vault 450. A note on the Bear Vault. I love it for organization and it sure beats hanging a sack from a tree limb, but it weighs slightly over 2 lbs. I know, 2 lbs. doesn’t sound like much, but it all adds up quickly. If you enjoy trying to hang a sack in a tree than go that route. I don’t want to deal with that at the end of the day, plus I always seem to forget to put some food or waste inside and need to access it again. Next time, I’d opt for a critter-proof bag, like an Ursack. To be honest, I only saw one other person with a Bear Vault and I never did see any sacks hanging from trees. I’m not sure what others did with their food. At any rate, that’s your only food, protect it, and protect the wildlife.
3. Stream/River Crossings:
No matter what you read. Stream and River crossings are always changing. Be prepared to cross them safely. Shoot for morning crossings as the water levels are generally lower at the time. Less melt from the snow above. When in doubt, get your feet wet. Don’t try jumping to distance rocks or balancing on unstable logs. Be smarter than my dumb ass. Also, if you don’t like wet boots and don’t mind the extra weight, bring sandals or shoes that won’t fall off and provide protection.
4. Hiking Boots:
I wore heavy hiking boots, but now I kind of wish I wore some low-top trail running shoes. The ankle support was great with the boots, but I think my feet would’ve been way more comfortable in trail shoes, plus they dry out fast. I’m still undecided on this.
Miles Trekked: 42.37
Elevation Gain: 9,339 ft.
Total Moving Time: 21:34:27
People Seen: +/-100
Injuries: Misc. scraps on legs from going over logs, blister on toe
Major Critters Seen: 1 giant buck, 1 Marten (my first ever sighting)